Anyone who has ever been in business will know that things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes things just go wrong and sometimes somebody on the team fails to act in the way that you would hope or expect. Hospitality businesses can be particularly exposed as they involve significant numbers of staff who are not always highly paid dealing directly with your customers.

Years ago disputes with customers would be settled with letters and phone calls and the worst you might have to worry about would be a strongly worded letter to the local paper. But social media and on-line review sites like Tripadvisor have changed all that. A seriously disgruntled customer is likely to take their issue straight to the pages of Facebook or Twitter rather than asking to speak to the manager. What do you do then?

Social Media Events Unfold Quickly

This was the issue facing a hotel restaurant in Inverness this week. The situation arose when a family turned up for lunch and wanted to order fish fingers from the children’s menu for an uncle with Down’s syndrome. The hotel staff apparently refused and the family left feeling highly disgruntled about how they were treated.

Not having been there I have no idea what actually took place and I certainly don’t want to sit in judgement. But the way that the story unfolded through social media channels shows why no business, and particularly no hospitality business, can be complacent about its on-line reputation. It also shows what can happen when staff are left to react and respond to rapidly unfolding events without guidance or direction.

In short, the reputation of your business can be completely shot, and potentially unrecoverable within 24 hours.

The family felt that they had been refused service because one of their party had a disability. I imagine that the hotel had their own version of reality, but the family clearly felt hurt, insulted and offended.

The family took the issue straight to Facebook and posted a picture of the uncle with a statement about how the hotel had refused to serve him.

This was shortly followed by a page dedicated to encouraging people to boycott the hotel and a stream of negative reviews on Tripadvisor, mostly from people who had not visited the restaurant but were outraged by their alleged treatment of a disabled person.
Here’s a typical comment (there were dozens of others):

Would never eat here after your treatment of a human being, think you should listen to what’s being said!!!!!! Public apology wouldn’t even cover it!!!!!
Visited July 2013

The restaurant now has 247 out of 370 reviews rating is as terrible, most of which were a reaction to this incident rather than being from real visitors.

What Happens When You Have No Policy?

This is where the hotel’s social media and reputation management policy should have kicked in. Appropriate responses aimed at defusing the situation and processes for escalating the issue to senior management should have been clear. Unfortunately there was no policy and no senior staff were on duty. What you had was a group of staff with access to the same social media tools who thought they had been slighted.

And they reacted.

They reacted by posting comments on the ‘boycott the hotel’ Facebook page calling the honesty of the complainants into question. Meanwhile another page dedicated to supporting the hotel mysteriously appeared. All of this added fuel to the fire. The level of vitriol in people’s comments rose exponentially and soon STV news were covering the story. This can’t have been the outcome that the hotel would have wished for.

A Positive Reputation Makes You Resilient

One issue the hotel and its restaurant had was they didn’t enjoy a particularly strong on-line reputation before the event. There were already several luke-warm and negative comments on Tripadvisor from previous customers.

A business that had been serious about managing its reputation would have been able to point to a host of positive reviews and comments as a counter-balance to the negative publicity. As it was, it was easy for people to view them as a badly run business that didn’t care much about customer service; just the sort of place where you would expect this sort of thing to happen, in fact.

I’ve avoided naming the restaurant because I don’t want to get embroiled in the row and, like I said, I don’t know what really happened. But the incident shows how quickly things can spiral out of control when people don’t know how to react. It also shows why your on-line reputation needs to be monitored constantly and managed. Without sound policies and processes in place your business is left dangerously exposed to the public court of social media, which can dispense summary and sometimes unfair justice.

What do you think?

What are the best ways for a business to protect itself from getting overwhelmed by a storm of negative social media coverage? Have you come across any examples of companies that have got it right and dealt with this type of issue effectively? I’m sure people would find these helpful.

Some resources

If you are concerned about your ability to manage your on-line reputation or need a few hints on putting a robust policy together here are a few resources you might find helpful including a dedicated web page:


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